By Frank Spillers


Usability awareness back in the White House?

Obama is already being described as the Internet President. Will his Internet savvy include an agenda for usability? If so, what might that agenda include? In this post I explore these questions, connect some dots and present some potential solutions for how Obama's technology goals are linked deeply to harnessing usability best practices.

Tech innovators get excited

Late in the election season, Silicon Valley expressed its joy that a pro-technology President is back, as witnessed by Google's CEO promoting Obama in the weeks before the election, as well as former CEO's of eBay and HP and Microsoft also backing Obama in the run up to the election.

Al Gore was the closest the US has been to a pro-IT cabinet level politician. In 1998, Al Gore had this to say about usability:

"The benefits of usable technology include reduced training costs, limited user risk and enhanced performance ... American industry and government will become even more productive if they take advantage of usability engineering techniques". Vice President Al Gore 1998

While Al Gore promoted usability as Vice President, it is unclear what actions were taken if any. Ironically, it was usability of the voting experience, underscored by voter fraud and the infamous butterfly ballot, that helped get Gore un-elected in 2000. (The Usability Professionals Association made this one of their civic projects).


Not since Al Gore was Vice President did usability receive any attention at the national level. Where are Obama's views on IT and usability engineering? How strong of an agenda will usability play in Obama's IT plans?

Obama: more likely to understand the importance of usability

Obama's weighs heavily on the value of Information Technology (IT) investment and innovation, including staffing the nation's first office of the Chief Technology Officer (CTO). Obama's vision for IT is to invest in it to further social change. This is distinctly different to Bush's IT agenda which seemed to extend only as far as military and Homeland Security.

Obama has demonstrated that he gets technology. His campaign is a major case study in using IT to redefine grassroots canvassing and organizing. His advances in social networking for political gains were underscored by gigantic followings and views on Facebook, MySpace, YouTube, Twitter, FriendFeed, Flickr and others. Obama's age and tech-savvy combined with his recognizing how to use this stage of the Internet's maturity give him an unprecedented quality as tech champion:


"Some have dubbed him the first Blackberry President, as he can often be seen checking his mobile email device as soon as he gets off a plane.He is an iPod-tuned, Facebook-friendly, Twittering politician who fits right into the digital age and makes other leaders look analogue. Hecan communicate directly with the public via profiles on Facebook and MySpace, photographs on Flickr, videos on YouTube, text message feeds on Twitter and meetings on his own social network 'I must say how excited we all have been to elect a President who at least carries a mobile device,' said Chris Sacca, an internet start-up investor". The Guardian


Obama's tech-savviness was further underscored by, a forum for voicing citizen concerns and ideas (like Dell's Idea Storm), set up to help bridge the Nov 4th- Jan 20th gap. The Obama team even migrated their opt-in mailing list when closing down the site on Jan 20th with a permission opt-in and redirect welcome message and blog post from the Director of New Media at the White House. The Obama agenda says Phillips, the new Director, is participation, communication and transparency. The transparency initiative was re-enforced by a memo Obama sent a few days later requiring government agencies to "harness new technologies to put information about their operations and decisions online and readily available to the public".



Where will Obama take technology?

President Obama has articulated a strong desire to preserve and support several important issues: Net Neutrality and broadband access to undeserved communities. His IT plan is to bolster social change by harnessing technology and enabling access to the new opportunities afforded by technology. To do this, Obama and his CTO will need to understand and utilize usability engineering best practices.  


"Addressing usability of technology and its relevance to some adults are different kinds of challenges. The technology industry is the main actor here. On the one hand, the industry has ample incentives to improve usability and enhance the relevance of digital content to people's everyday lives. Yet the fact remains that the nature of modern gadgetry is daunting to many people, especially older ones.6Many respondents to our surveys tell us they would appreciate a hand in mastering technology and the Obama tech team might decide that government can play a catalytic role in nudging industry to improve usability and relevance through procurement". Pew Research


The Pew study underscores the need for human mastery of technology. Usability is instrumental for social change efforts with technology. Just because you have access does not mean you can use the technology effectively, efficiently, productively, joyfully etc. Usability is an enabler to the goal of empowering humans to use technology.

There are lots of things Obama could do with technology to enhance learning, education and community. For example giving primary schoolchildren laptops (like a project piloted in Northern England in the 1990's) or a neighborhood strengthening online community (piloted in the 1990's in London when I lived in the UK). Alexandra Samuel provides an intriguing list of 50 ways Obama can use the Internet to govern, many of which have already been acted upon by Obama.



But, what should Obama do to ensure that the people getting the technology can use it?

5 Things the Obama Administration should do to improve technology ease of use


1. Understand that a strong usability focus will be needed to achieve social goals.

Today we see usability slowly creeping into regulations and standards. For example, the FDA is mandating usability in medical device development; the government is backing standardization of enterprise software architecture (the FEA framework PDF); or that there are a few existing low-profile initiatives for promoting usability best practices as well as encouraging the importance of usability in government website development. A more coordinated and higher profile effort for "humanizing technology" will be needed. Industry understands that usability creates profitability. Having federal backing can help bootstrap organizations, non-profits and businesses who don't have access to usability methods and expertise.

2. Ensure the new CTO learns from and understands the past 10 years of Web and Software usability best practices.

It is vital that the new federal CTO understands and helps promote usability within the new government. It would be tragic to make the classic mistake of 'technology for technology's sake'. The Obama Web team has demonstrated their skill. For the rest of the government and the older Clinton years politicians, there is a need to educate and champion usable IT. Obama's CTO must be familiar with corporate usability lessons and mistakes in deploying buggy, useless, unsatisfying, unintuitive and user-hostile software and web services over the past decade. Usability is a documented science, this needs to be understood.

3. Realize that the Web 2.0 and Social Media efforts of the campaign and effort so far tie to a national usability agenda.

People have been able to access Obama's message because he has made it so accessible. If this is accidental then good for you! However there is a science behind this and many more non-savvy companies, organizations and non-profits are light years behind the success that has been pioneered with the Obama campaign.

Any initiative or effort to empower the citizenry with technology needs to be tempered with human-centered design (another name for user-centered design) standards and guidelines.

4.Redefine usability as not just another technical standard or guidelines but an approach to empowering humans with technology.

What Apple has been doing with their products is needed at the national level. Take a vision, base it in known usability best practices and make it work passionately. We need stronger regulations, better initiatives and closer ties with government and industry to promote cross-pollination of best practices.

Usability needs to be understood as not just another technical item (as Accessibility has been treated), but the entire purpose of the product. We need new thinking and leadership within our own usability community to communicate this, and likewise we need an executive federal level understanding that usability is a mandatory requirement and approach for technology initiatives.


5. Technology should be rewarded (funded) when innovated for social good.

What types of innovations can be developed by industry and individuals that support the nations goals for social good? Let's do what Bush did with the Homeland Security innovation dollars but make the innovations we fund have a social improvement backbone, instead of a military and security one.

The Obama government should open up technology innovation (Web and product) to social entrepreneurism. For example, for emergency relief, mash-ups created during Hurricane Katrina helped dislocated persons find shelter...or for health, for example, the Wii Fit is a technology with tangible health benefits (or so I'm told) ;-).

To start, having a conversation about how to get technology to work for the people it's destined for is the first step. It's great we can have this conversation! I would love to hear your thoughts, comments.




Best Wishes,

Frank Spillers, MS

p.s. Issues with Typepad have caused a re-write of some of these paragraphs. So I will call out an interesting news item about Obama's staff digging the White House Out of the Dark Ages for starters (hat tip to Matt Schoolfield).